Alcohol as Fibromyalgia Treatment?

Patient Expert

A recent study published in the journal Arthritis Research and Therapy suggests that alcohol consumption may be an alternative treatment for fibromyalgia. Researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston examined the association between alcohol consumption and FM symptom severity and quality of life.

Study Design and Results

The study looked at 946 adult fibromyalgia patients - 94% were women and the mean age was 49. Alcohol consumption rates and FM symptom severity were self-reported.

Researchers found that among the FM patients reporting low or moderate alcohol consumption (≤3 or >3 to 7 drinks per week), there was lower FM symptom severity and better quality-of-life scores compared with those who reported no alcohol consumption (non-drinkers). However, these associations were not observed in patients who were heavy drinkers (>7 drinks per week) compared with non-drinkers.

In an effort to explain the results, the researchers speculated that alcohol consumption "may attenuate FM symptoms and improve quality of life by mediating psychological benefits and stress relief or by promoting factors associated with social integration."

Another possible explanation suggested was "central nervous mediation via the modulating gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) system. Several neurotransmitters (including GABA) in the ascending and descending pain pathways have been implicated in FM. Thus, behavioral and pharmacological therapies that modulate or mimic the effects of GABA production can be promising for FM treatment."

In the end, they concluded that future studies with stronger study designs need to be conducted. They stressed that "these preliminary results should not be used as grounds for advising patients to drink alcohol."

My Thoughts...

Earlier this year, the Mayo Clinic conducted a similar study with similar results. While light to moderate alcohol consumption may seem to improve quality of life for some FM patients, there are two important points that neither study addresses.

1. A significant percentage of people with FM report having an undesirable reaction to alcohol. For more information about this phenomenon, read "Fibromyalgia and Alcohol Don't Mix."

Common complaints of FM patients who have negative reactions to alcohol include increased nausea, increased fatigue, sleep disturbance and exacerbated hangovers. Some FM patients say even one drink can trigger a flare of symptoms that may last for days or even weeks.

2. Since most FM patients take prescription and/or over-the-counter drugs, it is important to remember that alcohol interacts with many medications, particularly pain relievers. Specifically:

  • Alcohol increases the effects of Lyrica, tramadol and opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone, which could increase side effects or worse, could result in an overdose.

  • Drinking alcohol while taking antidepressants, including Savella and Cymbalta, increases your risk of liver damage.   Since alcohol is a depressant, it also counteracts the antidepressant effects of the medication.

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or any medication containing acetaminophen should not be mixed with alcohol due to a significantly increased risk of liver damage.   Note:   Vicodin, Lortab, Percocet and many over-the-counter cold and allergy medications all contain acetaminophen.

If You Do Drink

If you have FM and do decide to drink alcohol, be aware that your body may not react the same as it did before the FM. And if you're taking any kind of medication, please check with your pharmacist first to see if alcohol has a negative interaction with it.

Finally, I've heard that people with FM are more likely to have an undesirable reaction to alcohol that contains grapes (wine) or grains (beer, whiskey, etc.). I can't back that up with any kind of research. It's just something people have shared from personal experience. But it's worth noting if you really want to have a drink.

Source: Chung M., Wang C. "Can alcohol consumption be an alternative treatment for fibromyalgia?Arthritis Research and Therapy. November 29, 2013.